When María Teresa Koberg first arrived in Playa Grande, Costa Rica in the late 1980s to study nesting sea turtles, Doña Esperanza Rodriguez was concerned. At the time, Playa Grande was the most important nesting site worldwide for leatherback sea turtles, but it was also a dangerous place, particularly for a researcher. People were arriving on the beaches from all over the country to harvest eggs from the turtles’ nests, and Esperanza and her family were involved in managing these efforts. Villagers had begun using sticks to separate the sand into territories. Some people brought machetes and cutachas (smaller blades) to defend their sections of the nesting grounds. Fighting amongst the hueveros – the egg collectors – had grown violent, in some cases even resulting in deaths. Esperanza knew that María Teresa’s life was in danger.
To ease her concerns, she decided to accompany this strange young woman on her nightly beach patrols. Each evening, she left her family at home, including her four children, to meet María Teresa for her sea turtle surveys. María Teresa carried a pitcher of coffee and several plastic cups, which she offered to the egg collectors as she spoke to them about her efforts to monitor and protect the nesting turtles. When the coffee was finished, the two women began the counts. Side by side, they walked on the sand for hours, counting nesting leatherbacks and recording how many nests of eggs had been laid, as well as how many had been harvested.
I would go because I liked to accompany her, because there were a lot of people on the beach taking eggs, and because she would have been alone with that coffee.
In the late 1980s in Playa Grande, sea turtle egg poaching was rampant, with little to no enforcement by the police. “In those times there was no law,” said Esperanza. “I could walk by the policemen with a sack [of eggs] and they wouldn’t do anything to me.” Leatherback sea turtle eggs were an important source of income for local communities. The eggs were purchased right off the beach and transported by truck to San José, where they were sold in the markets as an aphrodisiac. These eggs also served as a source of protein for local families.
Over time, as María Teresa and Esperanza walked the beaches counting turtles and nests, they developed a friendship. María Teresa taught Esperanza about the life cycle of leatherbacks, whose evolutionary roots date back more than 100 million years, and about their role within marine ecosystems. Ultimately, Esperanza came to understand what poaching in this critical nesting grounds meant for the future of these turtles.
Yet, this was her livelihood.